Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Is Tacoma’s food co-op gone for good? Let’s hope not.

Staff photographer

We got the unexpected email Monday morning, like every other member of The Central Co-op on Sixth Avenue.

Tacoma’s food co-op, which opened as the independent Tacoma Food Co-op in 2011, and then merged with the Seattle-based Central Co-op last December, was closing.

Effective immediately.

In fact, by the time we heard the news the U-Haul trucks were already there, loading things up.

It was shocking, and we weren’t the only people caught by surprise.

Chrissy Cooley, who chairs the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, has lived at Seventh Avenue and Junett Street since April — just a block from the location the Tacoma food co-op has called home for the last five years. She says she chose to live in the neighborhood, in part, because of its proximity to the co-op.

We spoke Tuesday. As we did, Cooley told me she was on the phone, “pacing between the co-op and my house.” Independent of her role with the Sustainable Tacoma Commission, she has helped to organize the Friends of the Co-op Facebook page and a rally next Tuesday, described as an opportunity for supporters to “come together and problem solve.”

“I had no idea this was coming,” Cooley told me. “I burst into tears.”

“This morning I ran out of eggs, and I was clueless.”

Yes, that sounds a bit melodramatic. And, yes, the closure of a food co-op can be accurately described as a First World problem. To be certain, Tacoma has bigger issues than this.

But still, the abruptness with which all of this went down — and now the uncertainty that surrounds the future of Tacoma’s food co-op — has left many co-op members searching for answers.

And the answers are anything but clear.

To hear Dan Arnett, the president and CEO of Central Co-op, tell it, negotiations between the Central Co-op and landlord Ewald “John” Loesch were long and difficult. Faced with a lease that expired at the end of the month, Arnett says Loesch laid down a take-it-or-leave-it ultimatum that, ultimately, was not in the co-op’s best interest.

Specifically, it was the length of the lease that seems to have provided the biggest sticking point. Loesch — who has owned the building since 1985 — tells me he was looking for a five-year deal, at the same $10 per square foot the co-op had always paid.

“There’s no question that the duration of the lease that was being requested, particularly in light of the other terms of the lease, just was not in our interest,” Arnett said, declining to get into specifics. “(Loesch) was advocating for himself. That’s fair. That’s what he should do.”

“We were advocating for us,” Arnett said.

To get the other side of the story I met Loesch and his son, Fritz, outside their Sixth Avenue property Wednesday morning.

Fritz described lease negotiations as “dodgy, uncomfortable” and lacking in transparency. While his father would later confirm that he did hold firm to his demand that a five-year lease be signed, describing it as “a game of chicken” that “didn’t work,” the father-and-son team blamed the impersonal nature of the discussions for the impasse.

“It wasn’t a transparent, open kind of dialogue,” Fritz Loesch said. “If they would have just come down and had an honest conversation about where they’re going and what they wanted to do, we’re more than reasonable people. … We could have made that work.”

Instead, John Loesch said, he learned that the store had closed at roughly the same time as the message went out to co-op members Monday.

While it’s tempting to get into the blame game, the reality is we’re past the point where any of that matters. As Arnett told me, “We’re moving on. … That fight’s closed.”

“As bad as it is, I’m proud of this move, because I think it shows that we have a clear intent to operate in a responsible way, and a clear intention to build something of value, instead of operating out of desperation,” Arnett said. “We will build a store that I think many, many people will be happy with.”

So where do we go from here?

And, specifically, will a new co-op be located in Tacoma?

Arnett said he understands the concern the sudden closure of Tacoma’s food co-op has caused. He also told me, however, that promising to open a new location in Tacoma — as opposed to sticking to the vague “South Sound” language he’s used up until this point — would be a “novice” negotiating mistake.

“We understand where our members actually live. We understand that accessibility is a big deal, and that’s a major point in what decision will be made,” Arnett said. “At the same time, announcing publicly any kind of intent is probably counter to our position.”

In other words, we’ll have to wait and see — with no assurances.

Meanwhile, the future of Tacoma’s food co-op is left in limbo.

And considering the years of work that went into making a co-op in Tacoma a reality, that’s tough to swallow.

“I think our vision was to open and operate the co-op, and that if it was to not reopen I would be extremely sad and frustrated,” said Dan Hulse, the founder and president of Terra Organics and one of the Tacoma Food Co-op’s original board members.

“I think that the city of Tacoma, at this point, and with the way the region and the city is growing in general, could support a local, independent co-op,” Hulse said. “I think we have to take the board and the CEO of the Central Co-op at face value, but I think that the path forward is much more difficult now.”

Difficult, perhaps.

Just hopefully not impossible.

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